Champagne Ulysse Collin: visiting and tasting with one of the region’s new stars

Visiting the Champagne region: a conversation and tasting with Olivier Collin

This was a brilliant visit with the dramatic, expressive Olivier Collin of Ulysse Collin. He’s based in Congy, which is in the Coteaux du Sezanne, a little to the southwest of the Côte des Blancs. His family’s vines had been rented out to a large Champagne house, and he got them back in 2003. Since 2004 he has been making interesting terroir-driven wines of real intensity and depth.

Olivier Collin’s family had been farming vineyards since 1812, but were renting out their 8.7 hectares of vineyards to a negociant. But Olivier wanted these vineyards back: he felt he could do something special with them. So he began studying law (useful for getting the vineyards back) and winemaking. Olivier studied law for eight years before turning to winegrowing, and he completed a three-month internship with Anselme Selosse in 2001 before setting out on his own. As with Anselme, everything at Ulysse Collin goes through barrel. We looked at the 2015 wines from barrel, and then at some of the reserve wines. The approach here is one of working with discrete parcels and then seeking to express these terroirs.

In 2003 Olivier got back the first 4.5 hectares, but because of the difficult season he had to sell all the grapes. In 2004, healthy yields meant he could finally start making his own wines. Inspired by Selosse, all his fermentations were in oak (they still are; since 2001 he has some foudres as well as the smaller barrels to play with). In 2005 he got back the remaining 4.2 hectares.

‘In the beginning it was difficult,’ says Olivier. ‘I was quite alone in this region to make these kinds of wines.’

The vineyards weren’t in great shape when he began farming them, and so he has been concentrating on working on soil health. But he isn’t organic, because he doesn’t like using copper. The mildew pressure is high in Champagne, and if you use copper, he maintains, then you damage the soil microbes. He also thinks that copper thickens the skins of the grapes, and can lead to some bitterness in the wines. Olivier tried working with organics in Les Enfers and Les Roises, and lost 100 and 70% of the crop in each during the 2012 growing season. So he’s abandoned that project. The most important thing is to plough, he says. After that, the protection of the leaves is your choice. He says that he now prefers to work the culture of the vines with his brain and the winemaking with his sensitivity. He works his way through the barrels from the current vintage and decides at the last moment what he will keep and what he will bottle.

Between 20 and 40% of the wines each year are kept back as reserves. The barrel ageing of the base wines has crept up from 10 months in 2004 to 13 months in 2006.

Olivier makes five wines from four sites. He makes the wines with ageing in mind, and suggests that his wines have the potential to develop for a decade, although with such a short track record he says he can’t be sure. They have so much personality: I really like them. They all have low dosage, with a maximum of 2.4 g/litre.

Les Pierrières Blanc de Blancs is powerful, precise and detailed with lovely acidity. Les Maillons is a Pinot Noir with a remarkable fruity personality, bursting with lemons, cherries and rose aromas. Les Enfers is a Blanc de Blancs with an amazing complexity, and was my pick of a very fine bunch. Les Roises Blanc de Blancs is also fabulous with intense toast, almond, honey and citrus notes. The outlier is the distinctive sappy Rosé de Saignée Les Maillons, with its intense fruitiness and fairly deep colour. This is a Champagne grower to watch.

‘The most important thing for me is the signature of the site of a place,’ says Olivier. ‘Vintage could be interesting to me, but it is not the most important.’ Production is around 45 000 bottles annually, and just single-vineyard cuvées are made. ‘I’m very happy because the wines are completely different and they all have their own personality.’

The dosage for all these wines is low, ranging from 1.7-2.4 g/litre.

Champagne Ulysse Collin Les Enfers Blanc de Blancs NV France
This is based on the 2010 vintage with 48 months on lees and was bottled in 2011. Disgorged in 2015. Wonderfully appley and aromatic on the nose with some lemony notes. Powerful, nutty and lemony on the palate with almonds and fine toasty notes, as well as ripe apples. Complex and very fresh with stone fruits and pear, coupled with good acidity. Profound wine. 96/100 (04/16)

Champagne Ulysse Collin Les Pierrières Blanc de Blancs NV France
This is based on the 2012 vintage and was disgorged in February 2016. 12.5% alcohol. Concentrated and intense with fine, expressive citrus fruits and a touch of herbiness, as well as some apple and pear richness. Focused, with nice bright lemony notes. Very fine and expressive, showing real intensity. Pristine and fine with lovely acidity. 95/100 (04/16)

This cuvee is a Pinot Noir from a 6 hectare lieu dit called Maillons, which has heavy clay soils over chalk. Olivier owns 2.5 hectares here, and his vines average 40 years old. It’s a truly amazing wine, with lots of personality. 

Champagne Ulysse Collin Blanc de Noirs Les Maillons Extra Brut NV France
This is 2012 base, disgorged February 2016. Full yellow colour with a hint of pink. Rounded with lively appley cherry fruit on the nose. Very pure and quite floral with lovely aromas. Extremely fruity palate with cherries, roses and herbs, as well as keen acidity. Fruity and exotic with nice lemony notes. So linear, yet with amazing fruit. 93/100 (04/16)

Champagne Ulysse Collin Blanc de Noirs Les Maillons Extra Brut NV France
This was disgorged in March 2012, and it’s based on the 2008 vintage. A full colour, it has a rich nose of nuts, marzipan, ripe apples and toast. The palate is powerful and spice with concentrated citrus fruit and rich toast, wax and marzipan characters. Dense, complex and lovely. 94/100 (08/15)

Champagne Ulysse Les Roises Blanc de Blanc Extra Brut NV France
This is a 0.6 ha plot that makes around 3500 bottles a year. It’s 75% 2011 and 25% 2012. Wonderfully expressive nose of toast, almonds, pears and some apricot. The palate is complex, broad, nutty and intense, with rich, powerful nut, honey and peach fruit. There’s some warmth here and some depth, but also freshness and precision. Alluring and profound. 95/100 (04/16)

Champagne Ulysse Collin Rosé de Saignée Les Maillons Extra Brut NV France
This is a full pink colour and comes in a frosted glass bottle. Fine, fresh, sweet red cherry nose with some almond and jelly notes. Subtle cherry fruit palate with distinctive sappy greenness. Very fruity and a bit herby with nice red fruits character. Expressive and distinctive with some raspberry and tea leaf notes. 93/100 (04/16)